An old story about a future.
“I think what it comes back to is language,” he said. His eyes were focused on some undefined spot behind me.
Both of us had our arms on the table, completely ignoring the dinner that had been delivered ten minutes ago.
“The words you say are used to communicate things you feel,” he continued. “Or experiences, or descriptions, or anything. If you’re hurt, you feel pain, and so you say ‘ouch’.”
“Right. That’s language.” I drew in a breath and let it out slowly.
“Mm-hmm. But think of it like this.” He brushed his hair behind his ears and looked directly at me. “What happens if your arm is numb, and you cut yourself while dicing onions? You didn’t feel it. But you saw it. Would you still say ‘ouch’? …In a non-deadpan manner, I mean.” He chuckled.
I thought for half a second. “No.”
“Of course not,” he agreed. “The word wouldn’t be expressing the truth. ‘Ouch’ means ‘I feel pain’. You felt no pain, and therefore, no ‘ouch’. Maybe some ‘holy shit what have I done to my fucking arm’ though.”
I laughed. How funny it was made me acutely aware of the strange irony of this conversation. It could keep me rapt for hours, if he wanted to discuss it that long.
He smiled and adjusted his glasses. “What would robots do in that situation?”
“They’d… say ‘ouch’,” I answered.
He took a sip of his drink. “Mm-hmm. They’re programmed to respond to a situation, but not a neurological reaction. They don’t respond to hormones. They’re too simple.”
“But what if they did?” He held a subtle smirk on his face.
I furrowed my eyebrows a bit. “Then that’s when they’d be alive. That’s what you’re getting at, right?”
“Actually, I’m getting at the opposite.”
He put down his drink and leaned forward. “If they responded to chemicals, they would still be responding to one variable. Hypothetically, if the chemicals were self-contained and set to a timer, they would be saying ‘ouch’ whenever the ‘say-ouch’ chemical rolled around. It wouldn’t be any different than responding to visual stimuli.”
I tossed this around in my mind, giving myself a firmer grasp on the concept.
“It’s only when,” he went on, “the chemicals are triggered by a situation, and words are chosen to communicate that chemical reaction, that you have sentience.”
“You’re just adding a step.”
“Perhaps sentience is just adding a step.”
“There are people who can’t speak.”
“But they still feel that acknowledgement of a reaction to a situation. They feel pain, they think ‘ouch’, in whatever form they can think it.”
“There are people who can’t feel pain.”
“I know…” He looked towards the edge of the table, his face slightly red. “I guess the two-step process only applies to robots, really. It’s hard to describe.”
“We’re really getting into a gray territory,” I pointed out, finally noticing the french fries next to the veggie burger to my left. I picked up a few and shoved them into my mouth while he put his hand to his chin in contemplation.
“Mm-hmm. Meaning of life stuff. …What you’re asking is if we’re self-aware.”
He picked up one of his own french fries and nibbled at it. His brow was furrowed. “How can one prove one’s own self-awareness?”
“It’s that… feeling,” I began, setting down the french fry I’d been about to devour. “We’re all machines, fashioned either by nature or nature’s creation. I could even say robots are part of nature, since they’re a bi-product of it. But we’ve got a perspective. We think with our brains. We’re trapped in our bodies. We’re alive.”
“I think with my brain!” he argued playfully. “Er… sometimes.”
I snorted, and took this moment to drink my oatmeal stout.
“What you’re describing is literally the definition of sentience,” he chuckled. “Are we sentient? Do we know we’re seeing through eyes, and hearing through ears, and feeling through brains, and romanticizing with our hearts?”
“Romance is also in your brain,” I pointed out.
“Don’t take the romance out of romance!”
I laughed before I could start in on another french fry.
“It’s the same problem people have been discussing for centuries. Am I the only one who feels this ‘life’ thing, and everybody else is just a soulless shell?” He finally stuck the rest of his french fry in his mouth and swallowed.
“I’ve thought of that, too, actually.”
“Wow, no shit?” He smiled at me while sipping his own stout.
“Oh, fuck you.”
He giggled, and had to set his drink down. “I think that’s the key to actual sentience. No matter how the machine is programmed, if it feels that, whether or not it’s smart enough to comprehend the implications, that makes it sentient. ‘I think, therefore I am,’ and whatever.”
“When you say ‘machines’, you mean…”
“Humans and robots, yes. You spent most of last century exploring how to tweak the human body, right? Rewriting DNA, switching memories, inducing emotions, all sorts of Frankenstein-ey stuff.”
“Reprogramming ourselves, yeah. We’re machines. No argument there.”
“So it’s just that matter of feeling alive that makes the difference.” He bit off the tip of a french fry.
I started rolling one of mine around in ketchup, fighting the temptation of the veggie burger. “So, then, what about animals?”
“Ahh,” he said, leaning back with a smile, “that’s where it gets tricky! If a machine isn’t complex enough to communicate – or even acknowledge – that it feels alive… is it?”
“Someone who sees the look in a dog’s eyes when it knows it’s in trouble will say yes.”
His expression melted. “Awwhh, doggy…”
“See?” I exclaimed, and we both laughed a little.
For a moment, it went quiet. He picked up his own veggie burger and tucked in, so I gratefully followed suit. I was relieved we’d shut up long enough to eat our food while it was still warm.
“Mmm… burger,” he said between bites.
“Awhmygowsh,” I agreed.
“I never can get the spices just right for black bean burgers. I must’ve tried hundreds of combinations! Most of them were delicious. Some of them were nauseating. But none of them came close to Picasso’s.” He dove back in.
“Mmf. What about the fries?”
“Thuhfwiesawh…” He swallowed. “The fries are just restaurant standard salt-pepper-cayenne.”
I eventually got through half of my burger before setting it down. He was licking his fingers, nothing left but sesame seeds.
“So, back to the meaning of life,” I joked.
He put his hand to his mouth and burped quietly. “Life tastes good.”
“Mm-hmm.” I put my hands together in front of me. “I’m curious.”
“About what, specifically?”
“What did you, um… think of, when I mentioned doggy eyes?”
There was a short pause. His look confirmed my suspicions of that being a rude question. “You’re Turing-testing me.”
I smiled embarrassedly. “I… guess, yeah.”
As he wiped his hands on a napkin, he said, “I dunno. I was imagining a puppy being scolded for something – ripping up toilet paper, or whatever. Looking so cute that nobody could possibly stay mad.” He smiled to himself. “Big eyes. Floppy ears. Wet nose. …Probably a beagle. Or a Golden Retriever. It didn’t really have a breed. I hadn’t thought that much into it.”
“That’s cute, Mendel.”
He chuckled. “I thought so, too. Thus the ‘awwhh’.” He paused in realization. “That’s that two-step process in action.”
He looked into my eyes. “As opposed to the one-step response that would’ve been triggered by you saying the word ‘dog’.”
“Don’t be. You’re not a programmer, so you don’t recognize the difference between a two-step machine and a one-and-two step machine. A crude Turing test is a reasonable solution to that uncertainty.”
I was stirring the fries around my plate. “I could’ve been more forward about it.”
“I would’ve appreciated that, yeah. But it’s done.” He sipped his drink, and then smiled. “Hopefully I passed.”
I looked at him. “Dog.”
We both laughed.
The waiter approached us in that moment, awkwardly laughing along, interrupting the magic, as waiters do. “Sounds like everything’s great over here! Is there anything I can get you two? Perhaps some dessert…?”
“I think I’ll have another Vanilla Oatis, please,” Mendel said, handing the waiter his empty glass.
“Same for me.” I passed over my glass as well.
“Alrighty, I’ll be right back with those for you!”
As the waiter pranced away, Mendel smiled warmly at me. We were both thinking the same thing, I was almost certain: how funny it was that a human waiter couldn’t tell the difference between his fellow being and an artificial replica.
If I didn’t know my companion had a circuitry staple behind his right ear, I don’t think I could have, either.
And after another hour of discussing our differences in a very human manner, debating over which of us would pick up the tab, and then feeling the warmth of him pulling me into a heartfelt embrace before finally parting ways for the night, I was reminded…
It didn’t even matter.